AignerGate Season Finale: How Stefan Aigner signing for Colorado Rapids went wrong

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Photo Credit: John A. Babiak @Photog_JohnB

Editorial (June 10, 2018)Stefan Aigner is no longer a member of the Colorado Rapids. Earlier this week, the club and the German winger mutually agreed to part ways, dissolving the remainder of his three and half year Targeted Allocation Money level contract with the club.

AignerGate Season Finale: How Stefan Aigner signing for Colorado Rapids went wrong

Aigner spent just over 10 months in Commerce City, signing on July 26, 2017. With the resources and time taken to acquire him, he was meant to be a key piece of the attack in 2018. It didn’t work out for a number of reasons as he and first-year Head Coach Anthony Hudson developed issues on and off the training ground. Dubbed ‘AignerGate,’ here’s how the Rapids screwed up this signing, with commentary on who all is at fault.

Resources consumed: Sacrificing the 2017 season for 2018

The Colorado Rapids set in motion their 2017 downfall in late March, with a trade that sent Sam Cronin and Marc Burch to Minnesota United FC in exchange for an international roster spot, Joshua Gatt, and Mohammed Said.

As soon as that happened, for the Rapids to maintain their defensive prowess, Nana Boateng had to be the man. He wasn’t, albeit in his first season in MLS and he did miss over two months with a serious back injury.

With the Rapids rebuilding during the off-season, Gatt and Saeid departed the club, though Saeid did ask the club to be let go for personal reasons. With that, the only assets left for making a trade that had a ripple effect was Aigner.

For that trade and the temporary steps backward to pay off, the club’s actions in the 2017 summer transfer window had to pay off.

It took them almost the entire window to make a signing, the only one being bringing in Aigner. By the time Aigner was finally in training, Head Coach Pablo Mastroeni had been dismissed and the club was all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.

The success or failure of the Aigner signing came down to what he would do in 2018. He made just one appearance for 11 minutes this year. No goals. No assists.

If you listen to Holding The High Line regularly, you know I talk a lot about asset management. The Rapids gave away two starters to give themselves the ability to sign Aigner. They also took a flyer on two players who had been unproven in MLS. By the end of the year, neither of those players were with the club.

In short, the club gave up a lot to get Aigner. It led to 10 games, not even 500 minutes played, two goals, and one assist. And most of that happened in 2017 when the season was already lost.

Moves like this one derail seasons and get front office executives fired.

Poster boy: Taking their time and making a big deal

Make no mistake, the Colorado Rapids marketed Aigner as the start of a new era for the club. General Manager Padraig Smith dubbed it ‘The Rapids Way’ in an op-ed he wrote for the Denver Post.

The club validated the “sewing of the seeds” that sacrificed the 2017 season in some capacity to get Aigner and begin the evolution to a brighter 2018. The club had a media roundtable for Aigner, an entrance only topped by Tim Howard arriving in 2016 in club player signings.

Before all this happened, the club took nearly a month to finally sign him. He was the only signing of the summer transfer window last year. Smith and Mastroeni documented the club scouting him, bringing him to Colorado, and discussing life on and off the field over dinners. They did all of this with Scouting Coordinator Chris Zitterbart translating from English to German.

The Rapids didn’t make any other moves last summer. At that point, they knew they were going to do more in the winter. Aigner was their prime target at that time. He was that important to the future.

AignerGate’s evolution under the microscope:

The struggles started in pre-season when Aigner missed several weeks of training and the second leg of a CONCACAF Champions League series with Toronto FC. He had to head back to Germany to get his green card sorted out and had 10-days of sickness that kept him out of the team.

Hudson has a high standard when it comes to physical fitness, so it took some time for Aigner to become available for selection.

In his only appearance this year (March 31, 2018), forward Dominique Badji had a hattrick against the Philadelphia Union. On his third goal, the Rapids were on a break and there seemed to be a chance for Badji to square pass the ball to Aigner for a tap in to seal the win. He elected to shoot and Aigner appeared frustrated despite his team winning and a teammate getting his first hattrick.

We might never know if this was anything significant in this saga.

On April 10, there was a dustup in training that saw Aigner leave training early. From an outsider’s perspective, this was the first external display of hostilities. Perhaps contentious conversations had already occurred behind closed doors. While Hudson tried to downplay the events of the day, AignerGate had begun.

They continued to lose. Hudson kept the lineup and gameplan more-or-less the same. Aigner remained off the team sheet.

In the weeks to come, Hudson stated that Aigner was available for selection and that “it’s down to performance and him having to make the 18. It’s as simple as that. The detail of that is between me and him.”

Those comments were made at the start of what is now a historic losing streak for the club. The Rapids continued to struggle to score goals. They continued to lose. Hudson kept the lineup and gameplan more-or-less the same. Aigner remained off the team sheet.

Two weeks ago, we got some new light in an interview with NBC 9 News Denver by Cealey Godwin. Hudson stated for the first time that there had been fitness issues and a lack of team commitment from Aigner.

“I don’t know. It’s strange. We want players here that want to fight for the club and we haven’t really seen it,” said Hudson when asked about what happened to Aigner’s fitness level.

Hudson went onto say that he was willing to change things tactically to accommodate Aigner and ameliorate the bad blood. He argued that this was a significant peace offering given his tactical history.

“I’m always throwing solutions to the situation,” Hudson said, adding that the ball was in Aigner’s court and that the “door is always open”

Aigner never really fit into Hudson’s system to be fair. The 3-5-2 requires wide players to defend. Aigner is a winger, not a wingback. With that, he was constrained to being either a forward or central midfielder. Hudson seems to want two No. 8s and a No. 6 in the middle. Aigner is more of a No. 10, and even then, he needs the freedom to float from touchline to touchline to be effective.

Hudson also wants his two forwards to be channel runners, not floaters. In his teams, assignments are more rigid and leave less room for improvisation and players expressing themselves.

Independent of their personal issues, Hudson’s system didn’t have a role for Aigner to be an effective asset.

The last month or so, Aigner had been sparingly in team training. He’d been absent from most team drills and scrimmages, usually only participating in the beginning and end of training.

Perhaps this was part of his lack of commitment to the team, though AignerGate was very well developed at this point. Perhaps it was his way of forcing the front office’s had in terminating his contract knowing that he was never going to get back on Hudson’s good side no matter how hard he trained.

Messaging and inconsistencies: Who’s fault is it?

The first year manager has been hesitant to criticize any players. He should be commended for his efforts to keep this issue and others in-house to try and resolve them.

That said, Hudson’s comments on Aigner have been inconsistent. If fitness issues were one of the main problems, why didn’t he bring that up in April? He’s been quick to bring up fitness concerns with other players this year and not in an effort to cast blame.

He’s brought up tactical fit, awareness, and comprehension with other players. There are several players on this team that are pet projects for him in terms of molding them into a useful piece in his machine.

The messaging has been inconsistent and Hudson could have framed this as a smaller issue to manage expectations.

Marlon Hairston is being tried at wingback. Shkelzen Gashi has been moved to the midfield when his best years of club football were as a second forward. Dominique Badji’s being asked to check to the ball more rather than challenge the center backs at times.

In talking about tactical continuities, he could have elaborated on Aigner adjusting. He’s been quick to bring up change and the process on almost every other media topic.

Hudson might not be at fault in AignerGate. It could be all Aigner’s fault. Regardless, the messaging has been inconsistent and Hudson could have framed this as a smaller issue to manage expectations. This kind of messaging has made it difficult for some fans to see it from Hudson’s perspective, especially with the team losing and Aigner rotting in the corner of the locker room.

The rest of the roster was hesitant to expound on the matter or talk about how it was affecting the lineup. This was clearly a coach-to-player issue. Other players weren’t willing to openly discuss if they were trying to help resolve the matter.

“Honestly, I cannot say cause I don’t really know what’s happening. This is between Stefan and the club. Stefan is a good man but there may be something between him and the club,” forward Yannick Boli told Last Word on Soccer when asked about Aigner’s absence.

Aigner declined all external media requests during this period. Now that he’s departed the club (and probably the continent), we may never hear his side of what happened. With that, we’ll probably never know the full story or be able to determine everyone’s level of blame. Hudson clearly made it an Aigner problem.

Maybe it was Aigner’s attitude. Maybe it was Hudson not giving the player a fair shake. Maybe it was Padraig Smith not doing his due diligence in researching to see if the player had an attitude/fitness problem in the past. Maybe Smith and Hudson needed to have a more developed idea for how to utilize Aigner.

Maybe it was a combination of some/all of the above.

Onward and upward?

With the Rapids and Aigner mutually agreeing to dissolve his contract, they free up a significant amount of cap space as well as some TAM. Both of these will be available for use for the summer transfer window. With the press release, it looks like the Rapids did not need to buy out Aigner. MLS teams have the ability to buy one player’s contract a season by paying the player the remainder of one year’s compensation.

We’ll see how they use it. Hopefully, that money is spent better bringing in talent that produces more on-field results when it matters than Aigner.

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